Thursday, November 26, 2009

Private ownership's roadblock to science

Written by Mike Palecek

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

We are constantly bombarded with the myth that capitalism drives innovation, technology, and scientific advancement. But in fact, the precise opposite is true. Capitalism is holding back every aspect of human development, and science and technology is no exception.

We are constantly bombarded with the myth that capitalism drives innovation, technology, and scientific advancement. We are told that competition, combined with the profit motive, pushes science to new frontiers and gives big corporations incentive to invent new medicines, drugs, and treatments. The free market, we are told, is the greatest motivator for human advance. But in fact, the precise opposite is true. Patents, profits, and private ownership of the means of production are actually the greatest fetters science has known in recent history. Capitalism is holding back every aspect of human development, and science and technology is no exception.

The most recent and blatant example of private ownership serving as a barrier to advancement can be found in the Ida fossil. Darwinius masillae is a 47 million year old lemur that was recently “discovered”. Anyone and everyone interested in evolution cheered at the unveiling of a transitional species, linking upper primates and lower mammals. Ida has forward-facing eyes, short limbs, and even opposable thumbs. What is even more remarkable is the stunning condition she was preserved in. This fossil is 95% complete. The outline of her fur is clearly visible and scientists have even been able to examine the contents of her stomach, determining that her last meal consisted of fruits, seeds, and leaves. Enthusiasts are flocking to New York’s Museum of Natural History to get a glimpse of the landmark fossil.

So what does Ida have to do with capitalism? Well, she was actually unearthed in 1983 and has been held by a private collector ever since. The collector didn’t realize the significance of the fossil (not surprising since he is not a paleontologist) and so it just collected dust for 25 years.

There is a large international market for fossils. Capitalism has reduced these treasures, which rightly belong to all of humanity, to mere commodities. Privately held fossils are regularly leased to museums so that they may be studied or displayed. Private fossil collections tour the world, where they can make money for their owners, instead of undergoing serious study. And countless rare specimens sit in the warehouses of investment companies, or the living rooms of collectors serving as nothing more than a conversation piece. It is impossible to know how many important fossils are sitting, waiting to be discovered in some millionaire’s office.

Medical Research
The pharmaceutical industry is well known for price gouging and refusing to distribute medicines to those who can’t afford it. The lack of drugs to combat the AIDS pandemic, particularly in Africa, is enough to prove capitalism’s inability to distribute medicine to those in need. But what role does the profit motive play in developing new drugs? The big pharmaceuticals have an equally damning record in the research and development side of their industry.

AIDS patients can pay tens of thousands of dollars per year for the medication they need to keep them alive. In 2003, when a new drug called Fuzeon was introduced, there was an outcry over the cost, which would hit patients with a bill of over $20,000 per year. Roche's chairman and chief executive, Franz Humer tried to justify the price tag, “We need to make a decent rate of return on our innovations. This is a major breakthrough therapy… I can't imagine a society that doesn't want that innovation to continue.”

But the innovation that Mr. Humer speaks of is only half-hearted. Drug companies are not motivated by compassion; they are motivated by cash. To a drug company, a person with AIDS is not a patient, but a customer. The pharmaceutical industry has a financial incentive to make sure that these people are repeat-customers, consequently there is very little research being done to find a cure. Most research done by the private sector is centered on finding new anti-retroviral drugs - drugs that patients will have to continue taking for a lifetime.

There has been a push to fund research for an AIDS vaccine and, more recently, an effective microbicide. However, the vast majority of this funding comes from government and non-profit groups. The pharmaceutical industry simply isn’t funding the research to tackle this pandemic. And why would they? No company on earth would fund research that is specifically designed to put them out of business.

Similar problems arise in other areas of medical research. In the cancer field an extremely promising drug was discovered in early 2007. Researchers at the University of Alberta discovered that a simple molecule DCA can reactivate mitochondria in cancer cells, allowing them to die like normal cells. DCA was found to be extremely effective against many forms of cancer in the laboratory and shows promise for being an actual cure for cancer. DCA has been used for decades to treat people with mitochondria disorders. Its effects on the human body are therefore well known, making the development process much simpler.

But clinical trials of DCA have been slowed by funding issues. DCA is not patented or patentable. Drug companies will not have the ability to make massive profits off the production of this drug, so they are not interested. Researchers have been forced to raise money themselves to fund their important work. Initial trials, on a small scale, are now under way and the preliminary results are very encouraging. But it has been two years since this breakthrough was made and serious study is only just getting underway. The U of A’s faculty of medicine has been forced to beg for money from government and non-profit organizations. To date, they have not received a single cent from a for-profit medical organization.

The lack of research into potential non-patentable cures does not stop at DCA. There is an entire industry built up around so-called alternative natural remedies. Many people, this author included, are skeptical about the claims made by those that support alternative medicines. Richard Dawkins is quick to point out that “If a healing technique is demonstrated to have curative properties in properly controlled double-blind trials, it ceases to be alternative. It simply...becomes medicine.” But this black and white view does not take into account the limitations placed on science by capitalism. The refusal to fund the testing needed to verify non-patentable alternative medicines has two damaging effects. First, we are kept in the dark about potentially effective medications. And second, the modern-day snake oil salesmen that peddle false cures are given credibility by the few alternative treatments that do work.

Technology and Industry
The manufacturing industry in particular is supposed to be where capitalist innovation is in its element. We are told that competition between companies will lead to better products, lower prices, new technology and new innovation. But again, upon closer inspection we see private interests serving as more of a barrier than an enabler. Patents and trade secrets prevent new technologies from being developed. The oil industry in particular has a long history of purchasing patents, simply to prevent the products from ever coming to market.

Competition can serve as a motivator for the development of new products. But as we have already seen above, it can also serve as a motivator to prevent new products from ever seeing the light of day. Companies will not only refuse to fund research for the development of a product that might hurt their industry, but in some cases they will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent anyone else from doing the same research.

The 2006 documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car" goes into great detail about the role of big oil companies, auto manufacturers, and the US Federal Government in preventing an alternative vehicle from hitting the road. The filmmaker claims that auto companies would lose out if an electric vehicle was ever produced because of the simplicity of their maintenance. The replacement parts side of the auto industry would be decimated. Oil companies would see a dramatic reduction in the demand for their products as the world switched to electric vehicles. It is claimed that hydrogen fuel cells, which have very little chance of being developed into a useful technology, are used as a distraction from real alternatives. The film maker blasts the American government for directing research away from electric vehicles and towards hydrogen fuel cells.

But the most damning accusations are against major oil companies and auto manufacturers. The film suggests that auto companies have sabotaged their own research into electric cars. What’s worse, is that oil companies have purchased the patents for NiMH batteries to prevent them from being used in electric vehicles. These are the same batteries that are used in laptop computers and large batteries of this type would make the electric vehicle possible. But Chevron maintains veto power over any licensing or use of NiMH battery technology. They continue to refuse to sell these batteries for research purposes. Some hybrid vehicles are now using NiMH batteries, but hybrid vehicles, while improving mileage, still rely on fossil fuels.

While the purchasing of patents is an effective way of shelving new innovations, there are certainly other ways the capitalist system holds back research and development. The very nature of a system based on competition makes collaborative research impossible. Whether it be the pharmaceutical industry, the auto industry or any other, capitalism divides the best engineers and scientists among competing corporations. Anyone involved in research or product development is forced to sign a confidentiality agreement as a condition of employment. Not only are these people prevented from working together, they are not even allowed to compare their notes!

Peer review is supposed to be an important piece of the scientific method. Often, major advancements are made, not by an individual group researchers, but by many groups of researchers. One team develops one piece of the puzzle, someone else discovers another and still another team of scientists puts all of the pieces together. How can a system based on competition foster such collaborative efforts? Simply stated, it can’t.

The governments of the world clearly recognize this as a problem; every time they are met with a serious crisis, they throw their free-market ideals out the window and turn to the public sector. It has been argued many times that World War Two was won by nationalization and planning. Capitalism in Britain was essentially put on hold, so that the war effort could be effectively organized. In the United States, such large scale nationalization did not take place, but when it came to research and development, the private sector was not trusted to handle it on their own.

Fearing that the Nazis were developing the atomic bomb, the US government initiated a massive public program to ensure they were the first to wield a weapon of mass destruction. The Manhattan project succeeded where private industry could not. At one point, over 130,000 people were working on the project. The world’s best and brightest were brought together into a massive collaborative undertaking. They discovered more about nuclear fission in the span of a few years, than they had in the decades since the first atom was split in 1919. Regardless of what one thinks of the atom bomb, this was doubtlessly one of the greatest scientific advancements of the 20th century.

Science, technology and economic planning
The ultimate proof of capitalism’s hindrance of science and technology comes not from capitalism, but from the alternative. While the Soviet Union under Stalin was far from the ideal socialist society (something which we have explained extensively elsewhere), its history gives us valuable insight into the potential of a nationalized planned economy. In 1917 the Bolsheviks took control of a backwards, semi-feudal, third world country that had been ruined by the First World War. In a matter of decades, it was transformed into a leading super-power. The USSR would go on to be the first to put a satellite into orbit, the first to put a man in space, and the first to build a permanently manned outpost in space. Soviet scientists pushed the frontiers of knowledge, particularly in the areas of Mathematics, Astronomy, Nuclear Physics, Space Exploration and Chemistry. Many Soviet era scientists have been awarded Nobel prizes in various fields. These successes are particularly stunning, when one considers the state the country was in when capitalism was overthrown.

How were such advancements possible? How did the Soviet Union go from having a population that was 90% illiterate, to having more scientists, doctors and engineers per capita than any other country on Earth in just a few decades? The superiority of the nationalized planned economy and the break from the madness of capitalism is the only explanation.

The first step in this process was simply the recognition that science was a priority. Under capitalism, the ability of private companies to develop science and technology is limited by a narrow view of what is profitable. Companies do not plan to advance technology, they plan to build a marketable product and will only do what is necessary to bring that product to market. The Soviets immediately recognized the importance of the overall development of science and technology and linked it to the development of the country as a whole. This broad view allowed them to put substantial resources into all areas of study.

Another vital component of their success was the massive expansion of education. By abolishing private schools and providing free education at all levels, individuals in the population were able to meet their potential. A citizen could continue their studies as long as they were capable. By contrast, even many advanced capitalist countries have been unable to eliminate illiteracy today, let alone open up university education to all who are able. Under capitalism, massive financial barriers are placed in front of students, which prevent large portions of the population from reaching their potential. When half of the world’s population is forced to live on less than two dollars a day, we can only conclude that massive reserves of human talent are being wasted.

The soviet government immediately tore down all the barriers on science that strangle innovation within the capitalist system. Patents, trade secrets, and private industry were eliminated. This allowed for more collaborative research across fields and a free flow of information between institutions. Religious prejudices that had long held back rational study were pushed aside. One only has to look at the ban on stem-cell research under the Bush regime to see the negative effects religious bigotry can have on science.

But it wasn’t all good news under Stalinism. Just as the bureaucracy hindered the development of the economy, it also hindered certain areas of study. While the many barriers of capitalism were broken down, in some cases new ones were erected as the direction of scientific study was subjugated to the needs and desires of the bureaucracy. In the most extreme cases, certain fields of study were outlawed entirely and leading scientists were arrested and sent to labour camps in Siberia. One of the most outrageous cases was Stalin’s contempt for chromosomal genetics. The study of genetics was banned and several prominent geneticists, including Agol, Levit and Nadson were executed. Nikolai Vavilov, one of the Soviet Union’s great geneticists was sent to a labour camp, where he died in 1943. This ban wasn’t overturned until the mid 1960s. These crimes were not crimes of socialism, but of Stalinism. Under a democratically planned economy, there would be no reason for such atrocities.

Today, it is the task of those interested in science and socialism to learn the lessons of history. Science is being held back by private interests and industry. A lack of resources for education and research keep doors closed to young aspiring minds. Religious interference locks science in a cage and declares important fields of study off-limits. The chains of the free-market prevent meaningful research from being done. Private companies refuse to let new technologies out of their back rooms. Private collectors hold unique and important specimens for their own personal amusement. Potential cures for deadly diseases are tossed aside to clear the way for research into the latest drug to cure erectile dysfunction. This is madness. Capitalism does not drive innovation, but hinders it at every step.

Humanity today is being held back by an economic system designed to enslave the majority for the benefit of a minority. Every aspect of human development is hindered by the erroneously-named free-market. With the development of computers, the internet and new technologies, humanity stands at the doorstep of a bright future of scientific advancement and prosperity. We are learning more and more about every aspect of our existence. What was once impossible, is now tangible. What was once a mystery, is now understood. What was once veiled, is now in plain sight. The advancement of scientific knowledge will one day put even the farthest reaches of the universe at our fingertips. The only thing that stands in our way is capitalism.

1 comment:

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